“A shared NZ language would be uniting”

We have had recent discussions about whether the Maori language should be taught more to children so that it becomes more widely used. alongside our other official spoken language, English.

Traveller posted this:

People often refer to what can be dropped out of the syllabus to accommodate the addition of Maori. I am not talking anything other than learning the language to fluency. I’m not talking the continuance at college, high school other than there be a general reinforcement of cultural Tikanga/Maoritanga and that it is ideally seamlessly incorporated.

From personal experience, I know that preschoolers are like the proverbial sponge and learn second languages quite naturally. How? Two of my children went to Kohanga Reo for preschool. One of them went on to study other languages in mainstream schooling very easily, something I attribute to the bilingual nature of his preschool exposure.

Of course, the impetus to converse would vary from kid to kid, depending on their sociability and parental, academic and social reinforcement. It’s accepted that learning a second language (or third, fourth and fifth) is exceptionally simple and quite natural to preschoolers.

Ask anyone who has raised kids in expat compounds, in say, Saudi. It is common for children to happily converse in Arabic, French, German, English and to switch to the mother tongue of whoever they encounter with ease.

There appears to be a ‘window’ of learning language that ‘opens’ at about the age of ten months. Infants can hear much earlier, of course, and there is some evidence that they can even hear in the womb. It is clear that they will begin to imitate the ‘noises’ they hear, and when there is a reaction from their caregivers, they begin to associate meanings with the sounds.

Over the next two years, infants acquire language at an astonishing rate. By the age of three, they have acquired basic syntax (sentence structure), basic grammar (the ‘rules’ of the language), and a large vocabulary of basic words necessary to their physical and emotional survival. Their motivation to talk with their caregivers is high: asking for something usually results in being given the thing they need.

Similarly, when the infant begins to play outside, with other children, then the motivation to talk to these children is high, and the infant will try to learn the language of play. Later on, at school, the language of the school will be important, too.”

There is considerable debate among linguists as to when the ‘language learning window’ closes, if it closes at all.

However, there does seem to be an ‘optimal’ age for language learning, when the child’s mind is still open and flexible, and not cluttered with all sorts of other learning, not to mention the society’s views on which languages are ‘prestige’ languages, and which ones are regarded by the society as of little or no importance. The latter affects motivation: children will be admired for speaking a ‘prestige’ language, and teased and bullied for speaking a ‘non-prestige’ language.

When the mind is being taught many many other things than language, there is less ‘processing space’ left for language learning. At the moment, the ‘optimal’ time for learning a second language appears to be ‘at the same time as the first language’, i.e. in the home beginning at birth to three years (providing the parents speak these two languages as their mother tongue).

The next best time for learning a second, third, and even a fourth language, appears to be between the ages of two to seven years.

A third period for learning a second language is from about ten to thirteen years of age, this is in cases when the second language is not the language of either the parents or the environment.

This is the reason behind the push to introduce ‘foreign’ language learning into the curriculum of elementary schools, in the grade when the child is about ten-eleven years old.

The ideal would be to introduce conversation to all children at pre-school level relatively intensely. As our society evolved to being more naturally bilingual the home teaching would become a driving factor.

I truly believe that a shared NZ language would be uniting rather than polarising.


I agree that it would generally be uniting if children learned to speak Maori from a young age. There would be some grumbles but I think they would dissipate over time.

Children in mainstream now get taught a little Maori at school but nothing to the extent of being able to speak the language.

I’ve just spoken with a 12 year old who says they get taught some bits of the Maori language, and sing Maori songs, and but nothing conversational.


Leave a comment


  1. Gezza

     /  25th January 2017

    Absolutely agree with trav on this. Also, To repeat a point made elsewhere last night, We have two official languages. It is silly not to know them both. If we drop English, nobody will understand us. It just so much a part of who we are. But if we dropped Maori, nobody will understand Maori. It is so much a part of who they are. This is where I think so many difficulties often lie.

    • Joe Bloggs

       /  25th January 2017

      Agreed. Language is intrinsic to identity.
      Just one wee note: NZ Sign Language was adopted as our third official language in 2007 alongside Te Reo and English

      • Gezza

         /  25th January 2017

        Sorry Joe. Thanks for correction, I knew that. Should’ve said we have two official SPOKEN languages. I favour compulsory Maori & English tuition in schools staring from primary as soon as possible. Optional for those not schooled from primary.

    • NOEL

       /  25th January 2017

      Some figures.
      Students who have no Maori immersion 246,641
      Students who have Maori immersion 18,444
      Students who have Chinese 24,143.

      With out more funding and promotion the numbers are not going to increase.

      • PDB

         /  25th January 2017


        • PDB

           /  25th January 2017

          Found it – ‘no Maori immersion’ is rather misleading. My kids would come under this category but in fact learn a lot of the language during their schooling, just not to a point where they can hold a decent conversation.

          • NOEL

             /  25th January 2017

            No Māori Language in Education is where the student learns at most Simple words, greetings or songs in Māori (Level 6- Taha Māori) or no Māori language learning of any kind.

            • Kitty Catkin

               /  25th January 2017

              I don’t believe that it would be uniting, people who have nothing in common but a language are not going to be united-how can they be ? We have a shared language-English-and, as English is de facto the lingua franca of the world, it must come first. A Russian and a Swede can communicate with each other in English. I was on a bus in Auckland where the driver and most of the passengers were obviously not NZ born BUT they were all able to communicate because they all knew English.

              A doctor and a dustman are not going to feel united anywhere because they have a shared language, it needs more than that.

            • @ Miss Kitty – “English is de facto the lingua franca of the world …

              No … https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English-speaking_world#English_as_a_global_language

              … it must come first”

              Why? Even if it does come first, are you saying “first” is the same as “only” …?

              And anyhow, the world – regardless of what language they speak – is more-or-less unanimously agreed that language is inextricable from culture … So the doctor and the dustman would have more in common than just “a shared language” …

  2. Pickled Possum

     /  25th January 2017

    Great Post Trav
    I know a lady who taught her son to tell time at 3 years old and brought him a watch. Every one scoffed at her saying why should a child of that age learn time. Her reply was so he know what … “be ready in 5 mins we are going to the beach then” means. She said how can we give instructions with time lines when the child has no understanding of time, just frustrates the child. Her sentiments where; it’s adults that limited children’s learning. It didn’t take long for the boy to learn either.

    I am in agreement with her and the learning of te reo falls into this category imho.

    I have korero with pre school children who can go from Maori to English without a stumble. They know what a marae, what a pune is and what tikanga means.

    In the same way an English speaking child know what a town hall, a spoon and the correct way to do things means without a lot of explaination.

    To make te reo compulsory is going to cause some angst (just look at the treaty angst)
    with some people opting out and strongly saying NO not for my child, but just ask some of your older friends how much they would like to have learnt te reo as a child and there will be lots I am sure.
    Lost chances as learning te reo as an adult is so very hard to do … for some. eh Gezza not you tho’ 😉
    I myself would like te reo to be compulsory, just as english is.

    • Gezza

       /  25th January 2017


      • In 2017 I count myself as one of those who wished they’d learned te reo as a youngster in the 1960s. The benefit of 21st Century understanding and hindsight I suppose …

        Back then I learned much, much more about American history [colonisation] than about New Zealand history, and what ‘NZ Culture’ I learned about, as an urban Pakeha, was remote High Country sheep stations and Correspondence School … this went on for several consecutive years …. a prelude to Social Studies I guess …?

        Such was the cirriculum under Holyoake’s National government.

        I’ve tried several ways as an adult to learn te reo and absorbed a smattering of vocabulary, along with some waiata and a limited understanding of tikanga and te kawa/protocol …

        When I think back on my primary schooling in the 1960s though, it becomes patently obvious that te reo teaching can only happen when a change in cultural consciousness occurs or reaches some tipping-point.

        It couldn’t have happened back then … and the fact it hasn’t happened yet despite all the progress shows firstly how far we’ve come, and secondly how far we have yet to go … I understand, for instance, that Maori & Pakeha ‘history’ of Aotearoa NZ at primary school is little more today than it was then …


        Oh, Life Force that animates the universe … May that tipping-point come soon …

        “Kua tawhiti kē to haerenga mai, kia kore e haere tonu. He nui rawa o mahi, kia kore e mahi tonu: You have come too far not to go further, you have done too much not to do more.”

        – Ta Himi Henare (Sir James Henare),

  3. Pete Kane

     /  25th January 2017

    Well our media have certainly managed the lowest common denominator of our English ‘component’, with spectacular success – assuming that’s the aim.

    • Or might we instead assert and perhaps even celebrate that we’ve made the language our very own Pete? Colloquial New Zealand English …?

      American and Australian vernacular English seem to be celebrated? “Tie me Kangaroo down” …

      I guess that’s two countries who have no need to concern themselves with biculturalism though?

      • Pete Kane

         /  25th January 2017

        Hi P. For sure, but my point was how well.

        • Pete Kane

           /  25th January 2017

          Down tick not PDK – too early for that.

        • Are vernacular language content and the quality of its usage actually divisible Pete?

          Like, can you say “Yeah Nah” and not mean either yeah or nah?

          Thats a ‘Yeah Nah’ question by the way …

          Sorry, THOSE ARE ‘Yeah Nah’ QUESTIONS …?

          Damn, I’ve made this rhetorical …

          Miss Kitty will sort it out.

    • Gezza

       /  25th January 2017

      But about whether you think learning Maori should be compulsory in school from an early age, PK. Thoughts on that?

  4. Surely if te reo was compulsory [or mandatory] the potential positive outcomes are numerous? First of all it would acknowledge te reo’s place as one of our three official national languages, the First Nations’ or indigenous language …

    Language acquisition, which is apparently transferable to many languages at a young age. I know primary kids who learned Maori, English and Hebrew simultaneously … Only beneficial effects … No detrimental affects whatsoever …

    Culture acquisition – since culture is inextricable from language – and commensurate openness to cultural diversity …

    The affect of these high-and-mighty sounding ‘concepts’ on general openness to learning, communication abilities, acculturation, human relationships, community involvement – as in the teachers of te reo and parents [who became involved as students themselves in kohanga reo] – and play …

    “Study” of course, is a somewhat strange and in some ways alien concept to use in Early & Primary Education …. So … MOST OF ALL … “play” …

    “Our National Curriculum identifies several values and key competencies that we strive to teach our children. Almost all of them can be developed through play-based activities: innovation, inquiry, curiosity, and sustainability, respect, thinking, using language, and managing self, relating to others, participation and contributing … I propose that we say, ‘enough is enough!’ Children in ALL years at primary school have the right to play, both within their classrooms and in the playground.”


    Really, IMHO, the question is this: Why NOT have mandatory te reo in primary schools?

  5. Reluctance to accept Māori as a compulsory subject seems mostly to be about the lack of room for other “more important” subjects. I can only repeat the case for the ease with which an immersed child will absorb language if taught in that vital window in my previous post. That said, getting enough certified teachers to undertake this exercise is a logistical problem.

    Both Māori and Pākehā learners of today will be needed as te Reo Māori teachers of tomorrow, as sadly, Maori speakers are declining. (See link below). I suspect that this in part due to the fact that more people are now identifying as Maori, and that is skewing stats. I stand to be corrected, but if that’s true it alarms me. Also, there continue to be low numbers of non-Maori studying Maori language at school (4% of those in year 9 and above).

    Of course, generally, pakeha are unqualified to teach Tikanga or Maoritanga in any other than an academic or superficial way. Hopefully, we could run larger, less frequent intense workshops and marae visits as part of the curriculum. But one thing is for sure, non-Maori will be needed if these alleged dwindling numbers are taken at face value.

    It’s in all our interests to save this language, and nurture and foster our unique culture going forward. This is not about being politically correct. It is about treating the first people in this country with respect and dignity. It’s about increasing awareness that Pakeha historical mistreatment of Maori was delivered in English, and the use of Te Reo was roundly mocked. Many people who were caned for speaking Maori are still very much alive today! There is no doubt that English has connotations of being the language of the oppressor. It was used to establish and perpetuate dominance and hierarchies. English was and is still more highly valued. It serves to advance the status of those fluent and articulate in it, and it relegates Maori speakers to an inferior status. English was, and sometimes still is, used to describe Maori demeaningly – “savages”, “primitive”, “had a Maori Day off”, “had a Maori wash” “Jungle Bunny”. They were called “grass skirt heathens” and called upon to become “civilised”.

    Surely it’s time we all came of age, grew up, manned up and stepped up to the mark and taught it as a matter of course.


  6. I think the key to this is having as many ECU (early childhood) and primary school teachers as possible fluent in Maori, other wise it won’t get much further than saying the days of the week, reciting numbers tahi to tekau and singing Pokarekare Ana.

    Perhaps itinerant fluent speaking teachers would do in the meantime.

    • Absolutely right there PG. It’ll take some serious government resolution to achieve this. It is, however, a political hot potato. I’ve never understood people’s reluctance. It seems common sense the native language of your country is taught as a matter of course.

      • Gezza

         /  26th January 2017

        Absolutely. I don’t get it that more people simply don’t see it this way trav. Or perhaps it’s more a case of – I do get it, but it’s just asking for trouble to say it – because some people don’t want to believe it of themselves.


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